Schools' condition traces to lax funding: Hamilton County Commission to blame

Schools' condition traces to lax funding: Hamilton County Commission to blame

March 29th, 2013 in Opinion Times

Chattanooga State Community College instructor Chris Willis, left, works on a media production editing assignment with students.

Photo by Staff File Photo/Times Free Press.

Hamilton County's economic development goals and our community's progress have always been linked directly to the quality of our public education system, both in academic achievement and in the adequacy of our facilities. Yet as achievement levels and expectations have increased in recent years, funding for construction of new schools and maintenance of existing buildings continues to lag. The blame is due mainly to years of inadequate school funding from the County Commission.

As this newspaper's Kevin Hardy reported Wednesday, the result now can be seen in a number of woefully overcrowded schools, some with a wait list, and some which are crumbling, moldy and drafty from neglected maintenance, leaky roofs and loose windows. Hardy's report noted that there are 17 schools on the school board's phase one, two and three lists for replacement, renovations or additions.

Ganns Middle Valley and the magnet Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts, grandfather-age schools with large student bodies and a wide following, have been continually dropped off the top priority lists for more than decade while newer suburban schools were built.

Parents of students and other patrons at the listed schools understandably are discouraged and angry over the lack of progress toward new schools. That's prompted some to band together and lobby school officials at meetings for their specific needs.

The school board clearly has a lot of say about the schedule and construction of new or replaced schools, but school board members rarely make those decisions alone. They are always subject to the inappropriate meddling of the County Commission, whose nine members typically use their funding authority as a club to force their political will on school construction issues -- never mind that school board members are elected independently from the same districts as commissioners.

Ironically, it is the County Commission that bears the bulk of the blame for the under-funding of school construction and maintenance that so disturbs school patrons. Were the parochial, penny-pinching County Commission members appropriately responsive to the school system's needs, its facilities and maintenance would be much improved.

Hamilton County's school system hasn't been adequately funded for at least two decades. Though the problem has worsened since the merger of the former city and county school systems 16 years ago, county funding for schools was already on the slide before that.

Twenty years ago, in 1993, the county property tax rate, from which the schools' share of funding comes, was $2.8132. Today, after two decades of inflation, that rate is $2.7652 per $100 of assessed valuation. If adjusted for inflation, the $2.8132 rate would have been $4.53 last year.

The school system, to be sure, doesn't get all of the county's property tax revenue. Its share of the current rate is $1.3726. County government, however, uses some of the $1.3816 general fund share to service the bonds that typically fund school construction.

The state's share of funding for county school systems has also declined on an inflation-adjusted basis. And Gov. Haslam has failed to adopt the state funding formula for schools that former Gov. Phil Bredesen partly instituted. Under that formula, Hamilton County schools have received an additional $12 million in state funding every year since 2008.

Regardless, the County Commission has basically turned its back on increased school funding to keep up with inflation. Since 1999, it has only implemented two 26-cent tax increases -- in 2005 and 2007. As a result, funding for county government and schools has declined sharply on an inflation-adjusted basis, even as construction costs have gone up at a faster rate.

State-mandated property reappraisals on four-year cycles blur the county tax picture to consumers whose homes appreciate between appraisals, but countywide reappraisal values as a whole are required to be revenue neutral in the tax rate.

County officials should be willing to raise property taxes more often for the school system. They should engage in land-use planning outside the county's municipalities, and they should consider impact fees for schools and services on development outside municipal boundaries. That would guide, and slow, the demand for new suburban schools. It would also be much fairer for students stuck in moldy, overcrowded schools. But voters here would have to raise their voices to see that done.